House debates

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Matters of Public Importance


3:30 pm

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

I have received a letter from the honourable member for Gorton proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:

The failure of the Morrison Government to acknowledge and address structural problems in the economy including record high underemployment and record low wage growth.

I call upon those honourable members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.

More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Employment and Industry) Share this | | Hansard source

We saw today that the government is willing to use its numbers to stop substantive and procedural debates from happening when it comes to ministerial responsibility. We saw last week that the Leader of the Opposition invited the Prime Minister to debate the economy, and the government, of course, used its numbers to stop that debate. This is the place where the big debates should happen, in the national interest, and yet, time and time again, the government refuses to have those debates. We have a Prime Minister and a government in denial about the structural weaknesses in our labour market and our economy—either that, or a deliberate failure to acknowledge or address these pressing challenges, including record high underemployment and record low wages growth, and a deliberate attempt to manipulate or omit evidence that casts serious doubt on the government's economic record.

Let me just state some pertinent facts for this debate. Economic growth presided over by this government is at the lowest level since the global financial crisis. Wages are growing at one-sixth the pace of profits, with the government presiding over the lowest wages growth on record. This is one of the reasons why household debt has surged to record levels—in fact, 190 per cent of disposable income. It in part explains why consumer confidence has fallen and consumption growth is very weak. It in part explains why business confidence is down and why productivity is down, while net public debt has doubled under the time of this government.

Then there is the fantasy of employment nirvana imagined by this government. Labor accepts that there has been employment growth—due, in the main, to population growth. But there are many facts that the government fails to recognise and to acknowledge and, as a result, fails to address. As Labor has been arguing for years now, underemployment is an increasing problem in our labour market. Under-utilisation—that is, the combined number of unemployed and underemployed Australians—has continued to climb. We are witnessing some employment growth, as I say, but what the Prime Minister does not care to admit—and we saw it again today in question time—is that we are heading towards almost two million of our fellow Australians looking for any work or looking for more work, but unable to find it—almost two million of our fellow citizens in that situation. Over the past year—and this is another fact that you wouldn't hear from the Treasurer or the Prime Minister—the number of unemployed Australians has increased by 43,600, and the number of underemployed Australians in this last year has increased by 34,100. That's nearly 80,000 more people looking for work, or looking for more work, than there were a year ago. That is something that's never acknowledged by this government. Under-utilisation now is hovering between 13½ and 14 per cent of our labour market, and that is very high.

Indeed, if you look at one of the reasons why we're seeing persistent low wage growth, it's that the labour market is not contracting. When you have over a million Australians looking for more work, that means there is slack in the labour market. Really the only thing that the government is relying upon to see any future wage growth is a contraction and tightening of the labour market, and that's not happening.

This goes to some of the questions around Labor's performance and the revisionism that we see by those opposite. When last in government, Labor's unemployment rate, compared with that of the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and, in fact, most European states, was lower—in fact, in some cases, much, much lower. Today, Australia's unemployment rate is higher than that of the United States, the United Kingdom and, indeed, New Zealand. In fact, we have not seen a decline in the unemployment rate in the way in which the government describes. We have seen a fall, but, compared to countries that we tend to use as benchmarks, there has not been a significant decline in the unemployment rate and there's been an increase in underutilisation and underemployment numbers. Because of that, as I say, over one million of our fellow citizens can't find enough work and, because of that, they're not earning sufficient income; hence household debt and falling consumption.

Those are the problems that exist in the labour market and, if they're not acknowledged by the Prime Minister, by the Treasurer or by the government, then of course we're not going to see anything put in place to address those issues. That's why the tax cuts have almost sunk without trace. Just ask small and medium enterprises about what has happened with respect to the first tranche of the tax cuts? It's been an almost negligible impact insofar as those businesses are concerned. They're not feeling greater consumer confidence. There's not greater consumption at the levels that the government boasts. Ask the large retailers as to whether they've seen the benefits of those tax cuts and they would say to you that the benefits are negligible. And yet the government continues to revise history to argue that things are going very, very well. The fact is that this revisionism, this attempt to deny the facts, may well explain why the government stubbornly refuses to deploy a fiscal strategy to kick-start our economy.

As we know, the Reserve Bank Governor has been gently advising the government for some months to bring forward infrastructure investment. Indeed, as the economy slows and the budget proves to be deficient in improving our economic performance, the Prime Minister's hubris and arrogance are on full display. It's not just the Reserve Bank warning the government about inaction and inertia; just last week the International Monetary Fund belled the cat. The IMF's economic outlook slashed Australia's economic growth forecasts so it would appear that growth this year has been slower than that of the United States, that of Spain and even that of Greece. As we can all see from the evidence presented, the Prime Minister misrepresents the facts, denies the evidence and contrives a story that belies the truth. In doing so, he not only sullies the office of prime ministership but ignores the economic reality, thereby refusing to address the challenges in our economy.

Meanwhile, of course, the government continue to look after their own mates and pretty much nobody else. Just think about the debate we've been having over the last little while. How slow are the government and how much little action have we witnessed by the government in looking after our nation's farmers, who are confronted with one of the worst droughts on record? The government have not brought forward support fast enough, have not been big enough, have not been fast enough, and have thrown farmers off support, and they're supposed to be the natural constituency of those opposite. Frankly, if they're supposed to be your friends, I really do care for those you have little regard for. The fact is that there's been a hopeless response by the government with respect to dealing with the drought, despite the rhetoric of those opposite.

How little care does the Prime Minister exhibit? What little empathy does he show to the 800,000 hospitality and retail workers who had further cuts, in material terms, to their wages this year as a result of the Fair Work decision to reduce penalty rates? At the same time, as was revealed in estimates this week, the Prime Minister's own staff are defying the two per cent pay freeze and, as we've been advised, they are being provided secret, huge wage increases, described by one of their colleagues as 'cheating the system', according to Alice Workman in The Australian. Frankly, we should not be surprised about the secrecy. This Prime Minister is no stranger to providing incomplete answers to questions asked in the public interest. Remember, any question he chose not to answer when he was immigration minister was on a water matter. When he was Treasurer and, indeed, now as Prime Minister, he refuses to answer questions deemed to be a 'Canberra bubble' question. Most recently, he declined to confirm whether the White House, no less, vetoed one of his guests because it was 'gossip'. The public deserve better from this government and this Prime Minister. The public and the media have a right to know.

Just as the Prime Minister is failing to admit that there are structural economic challenges, he refuses to accept that he has an obligation to be accountable, to be up-front with the Australian people, and the Australian people will mark him down as he continues to act in this arrogant manner. It is unreasonable, unconscionable conduct by any Prime Minister.

3:40 pm

Photo of Mark CoultonMark Coulton (Parkes, Deputy-Speaker, Assistant Trade and Investment Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome the opportunity to respond on behalf of the government to the matter of public importance brought on by the member for Gorton today. I would like to put on record at the start some of the actual facts in this debate that are pertinent. Jobs growth of 2.5 per cent throughout the year is stronger than any G7 economy, is more than double the OECD average of 0.9 per cent and compares to 0.07 per cent when the government came to office. A record number of Australians are in work and the participation rate has never been higher with nearly 1.5 million jobs having been created since we came to office.

The member for Gorton mentioned looking after their mates. I'll tell a little story that I heard somewhere around Easter time leading up to the federal election. I was talking to a mate of mine who is a plant operator on the local council. By his own words, he is not a wealthy man but he is a working man and has been a union member all his life. He expressed to me his concerns of having a Labor government running the country after the election in May. He said to me: 'I'm a working man and I've got two things to look after myself in my retirement. I have a second house in town. It didn't cost me a lot of money but it is negatively geared and that's going to help fund my retirement and my kids want the same opportunity. They're working FIFO—fly in, fly out—in the mines in the west of the state and they would like the same opportunity.' The other thing he said was, 'The only other thing I will have besides the pension is my superannuation and I don't want anyone to touch that.'

If the Labor Party want to look at who is looking after who, they might want to have a close look at their traditional mates and find out that they are no longer behind them because Labor no longer have the policies to support working Australians. We on this side have recorded three years of consecutive monthly jobs growth, the first time on record, with 310,000 jobs created in the last 12 months. The Treasury secretary at Senate estimates only a couple of days ago said we're seeing strong labour market outcomes, and employment growth of 2.5 per cent is strong. When we came to office, unemployment was 5.7 per cent and rising compared to the 5.2 per cent today. Under Labor, an additional 230,000 people were unemployed after six years of them being in government.

Female workforce participation is at record highs, while the gender pay gap is at a record low of 14 per cent, which is $1,100 per year lower than when we came into government, so that is a significant improvement. The proportion of those of working age on welfare is now at the lowest level in 30 years. It is also important to understand that the minimum-wage earners have benefited under this government, with the latest minimum wage increase at three per cent, which is well above the rate of inflation.

I also wear the hat of minister for decentralisation. As someone who represents a large regional area, an electorate that is half of New South Wales, I want to touch on the opportunities that the coalition are providing for people in regional areas. The massive $100 billion infrastructure spend across the country, not only in regional areas but in the cities as well, is giving an enormous boost into employment and opportunities right across Australia. The Inland Rail project is coming through my electorate at the moment. I was only speaking to a farmer this morning who is actually working on that project with a gravel truck, earning income in this particularly difficult time of drought.

I've got to admit the drought is severe. We have never experienced a level of dryness and drought like we've seen over the last three or four years. But, despite that, unemployment levels in regional Australia are quite low. Indeed, before the drought, unemployment in Dubbo was 2.2 per cent and across my entire electorate, which has some very small western towns, it was under four per cent. One of the challenges we, as a government, have is to highlight the opportunities and the employment possibilities outside the cities. I know some of the members opposite are regional but many of them focus on what's happening in the cities, but the truth of the matter is that there are opportunities for employment even now with the drought. We are having an enormous skills shortage across regional Australia. There are opportunities in health care, aged care, trades as well as in the mining sector. In my area of the Orana region around Dubbo, we've actually just started a DAMA to open opportunities for people with aptitude, skills and a desire to do well to move to a regional area to set up home, establish their family and add to a regional community.

It's also important that we look after our own. I'm particularly proud of the regional apprenticeship program that was announced in the budget, which is encouraging, through financial support, apprentices and employers to look after our young people. It's all very well to bring people from elsewhere, but we've also got to make sure that our young people have a start. The regional apprenticeship program, supported by Clontarf, has seen, right across Australia, particularly in my part of Australia, young Aboriginal men staying at school, going into traineeships and going into employment. That's the future of this country—looking after our local young people and getting them into employment.

While we might have debates in this place on a broader scale, it's important that we actually knuckle down and do things that make a difference. Right across regional Australia we are seeing the work that's been going through. In my part of the world, inland rail will provide 16,000 jobs in construction from end to end, and the opportunities for relocating businesses right along that corridor are enormous. There's a big discussion in this country at the moment with waste recycling—it's a massive problem—and the opportunities for regional Australia to take advantage of recycling, to take advantage of cheap freight through inland rail and to take advantage of the increased road networks, provided through the Roads of Strategic Importance program, the Roads to Recovery Program and other programs, to help grow local economies.

There is no greater form of welfare than having a job. Opportunities come from secure employment and stability in families. In disadvantaged areas where we have introduced the cashless debit card, that card has helped families manage their income. It's put stability into those communities and made those communities a much more pleasant and safer place to live. That, in turn, has encouraged our young people to stay in school and to move through apprenticeships and into local jobs. They have the pride that comes with that, which is central to this government. Things like the asset write-off for small business so that there's a cash stimulus generating income for young tradies so that they can upgrade their tools and equipment create jobs and certainly provide a very, very good, solid base. Small businesses is actually the largest employer in this country, so we need to create an environment where small businesses get incentives not only to invest in their business but to buy equipment to grow their profitability and get that cash moving around.

The member for Gorton mentioned the drought, and I will touch on that. The government has invested billions of dollars in drought assistance. Obviously, as it continues to bite, we will need to do more. As someone who has lived in regional Australia and lived in my electorate for all my life, I know how important it is that we have policies that are relevant to the people we represent—not knee-jerk reactions driven by populism. We need to make sure that those funds are going to the communities. The 12½ thousand farmers who are now on FHA are testament to the fact that we have policies that are getting to the people who need it the most.

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I wish her well over the next few months and I call the member for Bendigo.

3:50 pm

Photo of Lisa ChestersLisa Chesters (Bendigo, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Deputy Speaker. I might blush if people keep talking about what is going to happen in the next few weeks!

I want to take a moment to remind the House what the subject of the MPI is, because it appears that the minister representing the government has kind of missed what we are trying to get at. The subject of the MPI is: 'The failure of the Morrison government to acknowledge and address structural problems in the economy, including record high underemployment and record low wage growth'.

There are some structural problems in our community and the government keeps glossing over them and throwing out these tinkering programs and suggesting that they are going to be the be all and end all—and they're not. And the stats speak for themselves. The previous speaker said that women have never had it so good—that things are going really well. Well, the stats just do not back that up. Australian women are $800 a year worse off than they were last year. The reality is that women are worse off, and we need to start to talk about why. Cuts to penalty rates is one of the reasons that some women are worse off. Women who work in hospital and retail—the majority of the workforce in these sectors targeted by this government—had a penalty rate cut. Here we are almost at the end of those staged cuts and women are worse off.

Women predominantly work in low-wage industries—in award based industries—whether that be in care, community or retail. They are working in insecure jobs and part-time jobs. But we don't hear the government talking about how they are going to address those structural issues. Instead, they say, 'It's great; the gender pay gap is closing, because men's wages are dropping.' That's not addressing the structural problems that we have in this economy. It's not addressing the fact that we have stagnant wages growth and that people are, on average, in real terms, earning less today—and, in some cases, less than they did a decade ago.

The government have no plan to address the insecure work crisis that we are experiencing. Today you are more likely to be employed as a casual, as labour hire or in an insecure arrangement than have a full-time job. Those opposite probably walked out of high school or walked out of university into a job for life. Today that is a distant past. It is almost a myth. You meet young people today who are leaving school who say, 'What do you mean a job for life?'—not realising that their parents or their grandparents could do that. Today those jobs don't exist.

The other alarming statistic that the government is not taking seriously is underemployment. Almost two million Australians are underemployed and looking for work. These are the people you want to get behind. These are the people who are desperate for and wanting to do more work. People are working more than four jobs. This is a crisis; yet the government has no plan—no strategy whatsoever; no urgent crisis summit—to deal with the fact that people are trying to make ends meet by working for four different employers.

How is that helping our productivity? How is that helping our economy? How is it efficient to be working for four different people? Just consider the paperwork involved in working for four different people—not to mention the increased volume of work involved for some of our agencies with labour hire. I guess we can't expect the government to take on big business when it comes to labour hire, when they won't even sort it out in their own departments. This government is one of the worse for labour hire. We learnt through Senate estimates that at the Department of Veterans' Affairs, which is so proud to say it supports our veterans, 45 per cent of the time the person who picks up the phone is going to be someone who is working for a labour hire contractor. In the Department of Veterans' Affairs, where we want to have the most tailored and direct support for people, it is labour hire. And it is not just DVA; it is across the Australian Public Service. This government is addicted to labour hire. They just wash their hands—and its actually more expensive. We also learnt that through estimates—that it is not good economic management.

We also know about and need to point out the underspend in TAFE—$1 billion. There are 150,000 fewer apprentices than 10 years ago. This government has no plan to address the long-term structural problems that we have in our economy. We need a government that will. People want full-time work, if we give them the chance and if we help make it happen.

3:55 pm

Photo of Ben MortonBen Morton (Tangney, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister and Cabinet) Share this | | Hansard source

It's a remarkable achievement that Australia has completed its 28th consecutive year of annual economic growth. This is important because a growing economy is good for all Australians. Despite challenges, including ongoing international trade tensions, the housing market downturn and the persistent effects of adverse weather conditions on the rural sector, the Australian economy grew 0.5 per cent in the June quarter, to be 1.4 per cent higher through the year. Net exports, new public final demand, household consumption and mining investment all contributed to growth in June quarter 2019. Australia's real GDP growth is forecast to pick up to around its estimated potential rate of 2¾ per cent in 2019-20 and 2020-21. Household consumption, business investment and public final demand are expected to contribute to this.

Labour market conditions continue to be positive. Through the year to September 2019, employment grew 2.5 per cent and the participation rate in September was 66.1 per cent. The unemployment rate is 5.2 per cent, slightly higher than at the beginning of the year. At Senate estimates on 23 October the Treasury secretary said that we are seeing very strong labour market outcomes. Employment growth, at 2.5 per cent, is strong. The 2019-20 budget forecast employment growth of 1¾ per cent through the year to both the June quarter 2020 and the June quarter 2021. Since the coalition came to government in September 2013, over 1.4 million new jobs have been created. When we compare this to the six years prior, unemployment increased between November 2007 and September 2013 by more than 205,000 people. No wonder the Australian people welcomed the election of a Liberal government, because it is a Liberal government that's focused on growing the economy and, in doing so, growing the opportunities for Australians to contribute to the economy through their work.

The government continues to build on this very proud record by creating a further 1.25 million jobs over the next five years. When we look at employment growth, under Labor it was just 0.7 per cent. Now, it's 2.5 per cent. Under Labor, unemployment was 5.7 per cent and rising, compared to 5.2 per cent today. Labor is in no position to lecture us on employment or underemployment, particularly since the policies it took to the election were job-destroying policies.

We talk about wages. Wage growth is expected to gradually pick up, in line with continued strength in the labour market and a pick-up in economic growth. Wages, as measured by the wage price index, rose by 2.3 per cent through the year to the June quarter 2019. Most states and territories and most industries recorded higher wage growth compared with a year ago. Going forward, wage growth will be supported by key drivers of wages: spare capacity in the labour market, inflation and labour productivity. The Labor Party seeks to come here today to score points on the issue of wages, but under Labor real wages were growing at just 0.5 per cent when they left office. Today they're growing at 0.7 per cent. Minimum-wage earners also have benefited under this government, with the latest minimum-wage increase at three per cent, well above the rate of inflation. When Labor was last in office those on the minimum wage were hit by real wage cuts in three out of six years.

You can't just listen to what the Labor Party say; you actually have to look at what they do. What they do proves the point that the Australian Labor Party are no longer the party of middle Australia and they are no longer the party of the worker. They are the party of the social elite. They are the party of the inner city trendies. They have forgotten the basis of the creation of their party. They are not the party of a stronger economy. They are not the party of greater employment and higher wages. In fact, They are a party that will seek to destroy the opportunities for Australians who seek to be rewarded for their effort in our economy.

Photo of Kevin HoganKevin Hogan (Page, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There being no further speakers, the discussion has concluded.